betty takes a bathos

It’s not Sloane Crosley’s fault.

Crosley, one of the best essayists of our generation, got a gig writing Mad Men recaps for Esquire. I’m sure this sounded like a great job; I’m equally sure that she’s beginning to have second thoughts. She writes her recaps at the last possible second (even by the standards of something that has to be done overnight), and she’s being forced to write about bland, mediocre television. (I know about the procrastinating because I follow her on Twitter.) Therefore, I don’t blame her for missing a bunch of cues and incorrectly quoting key lines from “Tea Leaves,” the second episode of Season 5. The magazine itself is so bored that they entitled her recap “Mad Men Season 5 Episode 3,” even though some editor must remember that they’ve only published two of these things.

It goes without saying that I didn’t rush to my recapping chair, and Scott Eric Kaufman hasn’t touched this latest episode either.

Look, writers of Mad Men, nobody wants you to try to prove that you’re serious by making Betty Draper fat. Don is already not fun, and less iconic with each passing day. Now you want to remove the sexiness from a sex symbol? It would be one thing if the show had something interesting and profound to say about weight gain, but it doesn’t. Betty eats too much. That’s the whole story. Later in the episode, we see chubby Harry Crane eating dozens of little White Castle hamburgers. That’s how he became chubby, I guess.

When Betty rises from the bath, her weird teal-grey back and visible spine are clearly CGI. She looks like a fat version of Gollum. Thanks to the unsuccessful wizardry, we’re even more painfully conscious that this is a deliberate fiction with some kind of moral. The episode raises the issue of diet pills, but Betty isn’t prescribed any. That’s too bad, but in reality, I doubt Mad Men can improve on Requiem for a Dream and the brief discussion of speed in Six Feet Under.

We see Don refusing a joint at a Rolling Stones concert, and then, when the underage pot smoker tells him that he’s no fun, he responds that his generation (“we”) are “worried about you” (i.e. about her generation). Adman please. Don’t start making me nostalgic for the countless times in previous seasons you got stoned. Don’t act like everyone’s Dad (as Crosley puts it) when you were sleeping with Joy a year earlier. The point seems to be that Don is receding into the background and losing his connection to the young people. Well, he can’t. It’s his job to know what young people like, and keeping up isn’t especially difficult. This is a guy who bought his daughter Beatles tickets recently, yet (apparently) can’t manage to buy a Stones ticket for himself. I could understand Don becoming alienated once the hippie revolution gets underway, but that’s still a few years off, and from the very first season Draper was a guy with one foot planted in smoky beatnik hangouts. Part of his charm, as the perpetual outsider, was that he could be at home anywhere. If he used the term “we” at all, it was pure pandering or irony.

Any ten minutes of this week’s episode of Smash was more fun than the entire Mad Men debacle. I don’t care about Betty’s new husband, and neither, I suspect, do you. In order to work, this show has to be fun. So I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Crosley’s terrific book How Did You Get This Number, mostly because it’s better than “Tea Leaves” and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and both of her recaps combined:

But now, one week and four thousand miles later, it appears I have been duped into false camaraderie. I know these women call the urban centers of the Lower 48 “home.” I’ve witnessed some of them order brunch as if they’re competing to see whose food gets spat in first. But apparently they have also been camping in northern Michigan and skiing in Colorado. Voluntarily. All of a sudden it turns out they spent their childhoods spotting coyotes outside Jackson Hole or hiking the Appalachian Trail. I begin to suspect we share a different definition of “amateur” when it comes to the greatest of great outdoors. As they select fly-fishing rods without hesitation and brandish Clif bars at the slightest stomach growl, I realize these women are not kindred. They are nature’s pool sharks. […] They are up for everything and I am down for the count, slipping on some rocks and falling ass-first into the Russian River wearing head-to-toe fleece.

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